Friday, April 22 is Earth Day, an annual global anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. This year’s theme is focused on “Investing in our Planet” and even amid the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the expectations for climate action and scrutiny of progress only continue to grow.
Earlier this month, the United Nations created an expert panel to scrutinize whether companies’ efforts to curb climate change are credible. Many observers applauded the news as being “well overdue,” noting that climate targets such as “net zero” are interpreted and touted in different ways by various companies and officials.
Sustainability terms are oftentimes vague and extremely technical — and using these terms incorrectly or interchangeably can lead to confusion among stakeholders and significant reputational issues for brands. While net zero and carbon neutral may sound the same, they are extremely different in terms of scope, ambition, strategy and scale for a company looking to reduce its environmental footprint.
To help reduce risk and provide full transparency to your stakeholders on your environmental progress, communicators should know and understand this vocabulary. Below is a glossary of terms that our Social Impact & Sustainability team recommends for those focused on climate and carbon action.
Greenhouse gases (GHG) are those gaseous constituents of the atmosphere that absorb and emit radiation at specific wavelengths within the spectrum of terrestrial radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface, the atmosphere itself and by clouds. This property causes the greenhouse effect. Water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and ozone (O3) are the primary GHGs in the Earth’s atmosphere. [Source]
Scope 1 Emissions
Direct GHG emissions that occur from sources that are controlled or owned by an organization (e.g., emissions associated with fuel combustion in boilers, furnaces, vehicles). [Source]
Scope 2 Emissions
Indirect GHG emissions associated with the purchase of electricity, steam, heat or cooling. [Source]
Scope 3 Emissions
GHG emissions as a result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization, but that the organization indirectly impacts in its value chain. [Source]
A carbon footprint is the total amount of GHG emissions that come from the production, use and end-of-life of a product or service. [Source]
Legacy emissions refer to past emissions of nations, corporations, or individuals. [Source]
Life-cycle assessment is a cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle analysis technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life — from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution and use. Life-cycle assessments are often conducted to measure carbon footprint and more. [Source]
A process in which a relatively pure stream of CO2 from industrial and energy-related sources is separated (captured), conditioned, compressed and transported to a storage location for long-term isolation from the atmosphere. [Source]
Removing or sequestering more CO2 from the atmosphere than you emit. This typically includes using technology or processes that capture carbon and store it so it cannot be emitted into the atmosphere. [Source]
Carbon Neutral (or carbon net neutral)
Reducing as many CO2 emissions as possible across the value chain and balancing those that cannot be eliminated through removals, either through carbon offsets or insetting. [Source]
When individuals and companies invest in environmental projects around the world in order to balance out the negative environmental impacts of their operations and minimize or neutralize their own carbon footprints. [Source]
Insetting is the implementation of nature-based solutions such as reforestation, agroforestry, renewable energy, and regenerative agriculture within the value chain. [Source]
Net zero emissions occur when human-caused Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) are balanced out by removing GHGs from the atmosphere in a variety of ways. [Source]
Science-based targets provide a clearly defined pathway for companies and financial institutions to reduce GHG emissions, helping prevent the worst impacts of climate change and future-proof business growth. Targets are considered ‘science-based’ if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement — limiting global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) guides companies in science-based target setting. [Source]
To tackle a complex and adaptive challenge like climate change requires a common understanding of the problem and potential solutions. Being disciplined and specific with the language we use to discuss, collaborate, and engage is critical. Companies should consider ways to promote civic education so they can engage in the climate challenge in a more meaningful way. Earth Day is an excellent opportunity to educate stakeholders and engage employees in creative ways around a company’s specific actions on sustainability.